WASHINGTON—U.S. law-enforcement officials on Wednesday announced the arrest of Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix, the alleged boss of a ruthless Tijuana drug cartel, setting the stage for bloody turf wars along the U.S.-Mexico border and one of the most significant U.S. drug prosecutions in a decade.
At a news conference at the Department of Justice headquarters, authorities said they'd nabbed Arellano-Felix as he fished Monday morning. He was aboard a 43-foot yacht, the Dock Holiday, in international waters about 15 miles off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico's state of Baja California.
The yacht was being towed Wednesday by a Coast Guard cutter, and Arellano-Felix, known as "Little Tiger," was to be charged on his arrival in San Diego, where he faces numerous counts of drug trafficking and other crimes. Arrested with him were two alleged cartel assassins, identified as Arturo "Big Butt-Cheeks" Villareal-Heredia and Marco "The Parrot" Fernandez.
A total of eight adults and three juveniles were apprehended on the boat Monday in an operation that authorities said began 11 months ago and culminated in the arrests, which involved the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Coast Guard.
The Tijuana cartel is thought to be responsible for sophisticated tunnels dug under the California-Mexico border along the U.S. cities of San Diego and Otay Mesa. The cartel, allegedly run by seven brothers and four sisters of the Arellano-Felix clan, is accused of being the principal supplier of cocaine and other narcotics to the U.S. West Coast. It has ties to traffickers across South America and is capable of moving cocaine in volumes greater than a ton, according to DEA officials.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, a U.S. law-enforcement official who's close to the case told McClatchy Newspapers that Mexican investigators had provided leads and help with surveillance.
Authorities began tracking the luxury boat in mid-May, using unspecified electronic surveillance, the official said. It was docked in several Mexican ports before this week's fishing trip.
"This case is the result of extraordinary coordination and cooperation between the governments of Mexico and the United States," U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said, adding that "it takes teamwork to accomplish such a significant arrest."
The catch of such an alleged big fish in the drug trade is rare and important.
"It's a huge case. This guy has been on the radar screen for a long time. You cannot overstate the importance of the case," said Robert Stutman, a retired front-lines DEA agent and anti-drug lecturer. "Having said that, will it make any difference to drug availability in the long term? No."
Stutman and other experts think the Tijuana cartel is deeply, perhaps mortally, wounded. But that may not crimp the drug trade long, because competitors such as the Juarez Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, run by violent fugitive Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, are sure to step in. And that may lead to bloody turf wars along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, particularly across from California and Arizona.
"Somebody will fill the vacuum of drugs. It may not be from this cartel," Stutman said.
The arrest of Arellano-Felix may deny the Tijuana Cartel its last leader.
Brother Ramon, the enforcer, was shot to death in February 2002 in the seaside resort city of Mazatlan. The alleged top leader, Benjamin, was arrested in Puebla weeks later, then Francisco Javier, who's suspected of starting as a teenage drug runner decades earlier, allegedly began calling the shots.
The State Department placed $5 million bounties on the heads of Francisco Javier and his brother Eduardo. The Justice Department thinks that Eduardo is addicted to drugs and can't be an effective leader. Sister Enedina, an accountant, also is suspected of helping to run the cartel.
Fearing an ensuing turf war, Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon—himself accused by the Mexican news media of ties to the cartel—asked Wednesday for Mexican federal police to be sent to maintain calm, the daily newspaper El Sol de Tijuana reported on its Web site.
Three Arellano-Felix brothers, including Francisco Javier and Benjamin, were charged in a San Diego federal indictment in 2002 with supervising the shipment of tons of cocaine into the United States on boats, planes and trucks. They also were accused of ordering the murders of at least 14 people in Mexico and six in Southern California, according to federal court records.
Timothy Coughlin, the chief of the narcotics unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego, said Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix already had been indicted on charges of conspiracy to import and distribute narcotics, racketeering and money laundering. He said more charges could follow because the arrest was made in international waters rather than in Mexico but that no decision had yet been made.
The arrest in international waters was significant because Mexico has long been reluctant to extradite alleged drug barons to the United States, although most face indictments here.
Osiel Cardenas, the jailed leader of the Gulf Cartel, faces drug-trafficking charges in Texas. Mario Villanueva, the jailed former governor of Mexico's state of Quintana Roo—home to Cancun—is wanted in New York on trafficking charges. Guzman, who fled a Mexican federal prison in 2001 in a laundry truck, is wanted in Southern California on drug counts.
Only one Mexican drug baron of Arellano-Felix's alleged weight has been prosecuted in the United States. Juan Garcia Abrego, who led the violent Gulf Cartel, is serving a life sentence after he was convicted in October 1996 on 22 drug and money-laundering counts.
The Arellano-Felix organization is among the most feared of Mexico's drug cartels because of its long history of violence. Francisco Javier was charged in Mexico in 1993 with conspiracy to murder in the assassination of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo.
The cartel also is suspected in the 2004 murder of Francisco Ortiz Franco, a co-editor of the weekly newsmagazine Zeta, which dared to run stories about the cartel under its trademark banner "In Baja California, Free Like the Wind."
The Arellano-Felix family inherited the organization from Miguel Angel Felix-Gallardo after he was arrested in Mexico in 1989 for his complicity in the murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena.
According to extradition documents that the Mexican government submitted in San Diego, family members pay Mexican federal, state and local officials $1 million a week to move drugs across the border.
(Hall and Taylor reported from Washington, Ferriss from Mexico City.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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